September 20, 2007
Alyson Denny, Photographer of Water and Light
By Jennifer Landes
The current photographic method employed by Alyson Denny — also a filmmaker — is to take a piece of glass with convex circular indentations and layer it in water with a grid of black seed beads and a fishnet of crystals, both of which she wove herself.
She takes "straight-shot" color pictures of the assemblage, and develops them, traditionally, in a dark room. The finished image is something abstractly beautiful, yet structured, or as she terms it, "the result if Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, and J.M.W. Turner had a ménage a trois."
These mini-universes, which might resemble highly stylized frog eggs, are manipulated by the reflection of the crystals and the structure of the seed grid. What Ms. Denny creates with her materials depends on her mood and the music she listens to at the time: Funk will create one structure, while Baroque creates a quite different outcome.
Ms. Denny's latest series is titled "The Six-Circle Variations," and it debuts on Saturday at the Pamela Williams Gallery on Main Street in Amagansett. Although her last two series were based on organic materials in water settings, as well, she has returned in "The Six-Circle Variations" to the above-described more artificial manipulations of water and glass, which she first explored in a grouping called "Horizontal Line."
The glass, which she received from her uncle when he retired as head electrician of the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, Conn, is a "gobo," a device used in theater that goes between the lamp and the lens, creating patterns of light much like a stencil.
Ms. Denny likes the scratches on her gobo; they give it a patina or personality. She also likes how the created patterns interact in a layered way, "like phasing in minimalist music." In some cases, she even sees a progression in the interstitial spaces that remind her of the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge.
"I've been trying for a while to work with pattern and geometry with some manner of the organic to breathe some life into it," said Ms. Denny, who began her photography career in East Hampton 10 years ago while on a break from her work in television and film. While at a photography exhibit at the Lizan Tops Gallery, her husband, Eric Friedland, took the opportunity to extol his wife's new interest to Pamela Williams, then director of that gallery. Ms. Williams suggested that Ms. Denny bring her work over and, after the opening of the Pamela Williams Gallery in 2005, gave her a show.
Ms. Denny studied at Harvard, where she concentrated on filmmaking, math, and physics and worked as a theater lighting technician. Her first film teacher, Ross McElwee, employed her as an animator and assistant editor on the film "Sherman's March," which won a grand jury prize at Sundance in 1987.
"I learned an incredible amount and continued to work on documentaries for the next 10 years," she said. Her films include 1987's "Girltalk" (on which she was associate director, cinematographer, and editor) and 1993's "Total Baby," which she directed and produced.
Eventually, however, her interests shifted: "I found I didn't want to work in documentaries anymore. I wanted to explore more abstract stuff." Her father, Don Denny, is an art historian and abstract painter who taught medieval art history at the University of Maryland before his retirement.
"One of my great loves is theatrical lighting, but I didn't think I wanted that lifestyle. I also love abstract painting," she said. The ability to use a technical lighting tool in her photographs, producing an abstract image that resembles the stained-glass windows of medieval churches, is a very satisfying culmination of her background, she said. "It's like working in abstract painting, only I'm working with light, not paint."
Her first use of light, water, and photography — the "Horizontal Line Series" — was actually the result of a failed attempt to do a Bacardi rum advertisement. The pictures of the bottle she took, playing in the studio with glass and light, led to a "haphazard" exploration of the idea. The "Horizontal Line" photographs, rich in saturated color, can resemble Rothko paintings. All are anchored at the base with the strong horizontal line that is actually the side of the glass reoriented to the bottom of the picture plane.
"The Jellyfish Pictures," her next group of works, came from spending time, after Sept. 11, 2001, at the house her in-laws have rented at Louse Point for many years. "I was out here, and there was a huge jellyfish tide, like thousands of little hockey pucks in the early morning light. I just lay down in the sand and started taking pictures."
She hadn't intended to focus on jellyfish. In fact, she had planned to turn her camera on seaweed (a subject that she would return to at a later date). It was an emotional time, made worse for her by the hospitalization of her father-in-law, and wading through cold water and navigating rocky terrain to shoot seaweed was not a congenial prospect. "Instead, I decided to take a break and watch the sunrise."
Not only were the jellyfish less stressful to photograph, they somehow felt more connected to the tragedy of the moment. "They're shocking in a free-associative fashion, not quite surrealism," Ms. Denny said. Jellyfish, among other things, can resemble an explosive burst; at least, that has been the observation of some viewers, including a friend who reported for The New York Times from Ground Zero.
"It's Rorschachian," she said of "The Jellyfish Pictures."
"Each person sees different things in these works."
Some three years later she finally turned to "The Seaweed Pictures," which brought intense color back into her work. Although she shot both subjects, the jellyfish and the seaweed, at the same time every day, "the first two hours of light," the seaweed images are vibrantly hued in deep reds, ochers, blues, and gold. The jellyfish are richly tonal, but tend more toward the grays and browns.
It has been a natural evolution to her present images of glass, water, and light. "They're analogous to things in nature, even if it doesn't look like something in nature," she said of the works on view at Pamela Williams through Oct. 22. The circles explore "different patterns or routines of the day. Different moods are reflected in the coloration of those patterns."
Although her work is highly successful in its experimentation, she insisted, "I've tried a lot of things in this realm, not all have been fruitful."
It is therefore tempting to anticipate what she might continue her experiments with next: Minnows? Plastic flotsam and jetsam? Ice cubes, perhaps?